My review of Chevy Steven’s Still Missing can be found on page 10 and the flyer on the So You Want to Write a Book event where I’ll be serving as a panelist is on page 6. I hope local aspiring novelists will come out to this event on Saturday, September 23rd at 1:30 at the San Ramon Library.
1. In one paragraph, can you give us some highlights from the favorite book you’ve written.
I find it interesting that my favorite children’s manuscript hasn’t been published, though I’ve submitted it a number of times. Maybe this is because, as some say, artists are generally poor judges of the quality of their own work. But maybe it’s because it’s actually a very good manuscript and just needs someone to take a chance on it. In any case, it makes me think about something basic to a writer’s life. If you write only for yourself, your life as an artist will be relatively uncomplicated. But if you offer your writing to other people, you have to be ready for all the natural complications involved. If only it was as straightforward as “Write something good”! My The Great Snail Race relies on the simple humor of such slow animals in a race, the racers seeing themselves as amazingly swift. That cracks me up, and I loved developing the idea. So I keep submitting it.
2. How important do you think it is to incorporate personal experiences in writing?
This is one of those classic bits of writer advice, isn’t it? “Write what you know.” Like a lot of such advice, it’s profound, but it doesn’t always apply. Again, things aren’t always that simple. Some of the best writing comes from people who know, for example, a certain job or field really well, and who present that in their writing in a powerful way. Richard Russo’s Straight Man is set in a college English department, and Russo clearly writes about that world from the inside; he himself taught in a similar department. This profoundly enriches the book (and is, by the way, the source of a lot of its comedy). On the other hand, a book like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is science-fiction; it describes a trip to another planet, something Russell obviously hasn’t experienced herself. But each of these books is powerful, each is believable, and each captured me, sucked me into its world. So writing what you don’t know can work too.
On the other hand, it’s probably impossible NOT to include personal experience in some form or another. It leaches into your art whether you want it to or not. Russell, for example, left the Catholic Church at age 15, but The Sparrow is, for all its spiritual questioning, a very Catholic book.
3. Describe your path to publication.
What continually surprises me about my path was how unconscious it was. I started writing in sixth grade (due to the encouragement of a teacher, to whom I’m deeply grateful), and pretty much kept writing from that point on. But I never thought of myself as a writer, and even through early adulthood never even considered submitting my work; publication just wasn’t part of my thinking. I feel very blessed in that obliviousness, since it allowed me to develop as an artist in a pretty “pure” way; I followed my own nose. To me, writing wasn’t different from living, any more than eating or singing or seeking romantic love were. It was as if I was an apple on a branch, ripening at no other pace but the slow pace of summer itself. In time I began to feel—again, very naturally and almost unconsciously—a desire to have readers. So I began to submit. During a trip to Hawaii I learned about two Hawaiian fish with very long names and, thoroughly charmed by those syllables, asked myself: If the humuhumunukunukuapua’a married the lauwiliwilinukunukuoioi, what would they ever name their child? That led to Let’s Call Him Lauwiliwilihumuhumunukunukunukunukuapua’aoioi!, my first book, published in 1990.
4. How did being the oldest in a family of eleven children influence your writing?
What a wonderful question—I haven’t really thought about that before! It would seem that my writing for children was a direct result of that. I basically write for adults; I didn’t become a children’s writer till I began telling stories to my own kids. But the oldest of 11 is in something of a parental relationship to younger siblings, and that happened to me. I loved thinking about this question—it gave me one more example of how a writer is given so much simply by life itself, if he or she pays enough attention to such gifts.
5. Poetry and children’s books seem like the require very different skills. Are there similarities in your writing process for both genres?
Interestingly, writing a poem and writing a picture book, at least, are quite similar. In each case you’re working with a lower word count, working with compression of language, and every word counts in a big way. Of course every word counts in all writing—but a novel, for example, doesn’t pressure you with the same intense focus as a shorter work usually does. I began writing as a poet, wrote almost nothing but poetry for a long time, and have three books of adult poetry out; I found that that was excellent preparation for writing picture books.
6. And you writes songs too! How does that fit in to your writing journey?
This is a perfect question to follow #5, since the answer is a variation on that theme. Of course there are plenty of longer music formats, but I mostly write individual songs, three or four minutes long. This makes a song lyric very much like a lyric poem, and in a number of ways. Again, every word is critical, and saying a lot with a little is the name of the game. And, of course, working effectively with language rhythms is essential to both a poem and a song lyric.
There are two main differences, though. Some songs, like ballads, have very normal and predictable line rhythms in their lyrics, which are easier to write. But some melodies jump all over the place, which means the lyricist is, essentially, writing a new poetic form for each song of this kind. It can get very tricky rhythmically, and you not only have to make your lines flow naturally with the beat—you also want to them to sparkle, to forcefully pull listeners in, and then to work in all the ways good poetry does.
The other difference, though, is an astonishing advantage, and it’s a huge part of why I can’t resist songwriting. Music is to a song lyric as a score is to a movie. Whatever I’m trying to say in the lyric, if the music is right it lifts and empowers the words in a way that constantly surprises and delights me. When you get it right, music and lyrics seem to combust together, making magic. So, again, just as writing picture books goes hand in hand with writing poetry, so does songwriting.
7. What tools do you use when you are choosing words for your poetry?
I love this question. I love it because it’s at the heart of my life as a writer, an artist of language. I choose words for all my writing with a passion and attention that come from knowing how utterly important those choices are.
The great English painter JMW Turner, like many painters, was constantly experimenting with new colors and developing his palette. As one expert says, “Pigments found within his water colours include Gamboge, Quercitron Yellow, Vermilion, various iron oxides including Ochres, Umbers and Siennas, Indian Yellow, ‘Green Lake’, Prussian Blue, Indigo, Cobalt Blue, Blue Verditer, Rose Madder, other red lake pigments possibly Carmine, Bone Black, and Mercuric Iodide (genuine scarlet).” I love the names of those colors—because a writer loves words like a painter loves colors. Part of my word choice is intellectual. But a lot of it is from the heart, and from that strange but powerful sense we all have, to whatever degree, of beauty. I don’t mean that all word choices should be “beautiful” in the usual sense, but that all must have the force that comes not only from an exact choice but also from an inspired one.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Tim J. Myers. To learn more visit his website: http://www.timmyersstorysong.com/TM_Website/Homepage.html. He’s also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TimJMyers1 and Twitter @TmyersStorySong.
Note: Amanda will be presenting a workshop on what voice can do for your writing at the Mount Diablo California Writer’s Club on October 11th 2014 from 9:00 to 1:00 p.m. at Zio Fraedo’s Italian Restaurant 611 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill, CA at ($35 members; $45 nonmembers and includes breakfast). RSVP is required. Contact Robin at firstname.lastname@example.org (please respond by October 8th). Sign-in begins at 8:30 a.m., breakfast at 9:00 a.m. We hope to see you there!!
1. In one paragraph, summarize your book Going to Solace.
My debut novel, Going to Solace, offers stories to live by—literally. It’s Thanksgiving week, 1989. We’re in the Pineys, two hollows just outside Garnet in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Life may be going along for some, but for others, somebody’s sick, real sick, dying sick. Through interwoven narratives, we track a handful of characters whose paths cross at a local hospice called Solace. Some are country people. Some are far-flung, fancy people. All are helpers—resourceful family members, improvising professionals—each one determined to beat back death, or hurry him on about his business. In the end, they must find a way to stand up from the bedside and walk back into life after the dying is done. Neither grim nor roseate, it’s a book whose tone is bracing: often funny, sometimes wrenching, ultimately comforting.
2. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
What matters to me is that we all keep at it with gusto, with more joy than pain. I’m all for prying those two words apart, “aspiring” and “writer.” By saying, “I aspire to write,” I’m already telling the story of someone who’s not writing when, in fact, we can always choose to write. Hey, I’m someone who squeezed her writing in over decades of paying the rent and taking care of loved ones. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying it’s simple. I don’t aspire to write, I write. It’s on my calendar. Fifteen minutes a week or fifteen hours a day. Two words on the page or two thousand or none, zero. Those days count too. I chalk that silence up to the percolating we need before words appear. Bottom line, writing is a Just-Do-It opportunity we all share. The great news? The astonishing news? Guaranteed, if we keep at it, the work accrues. It takes shape. Eventually, we get good at it.
And then there’s aspiration, but it’s usually not writing to which we aspire (even when—especially when—we’re avoiding it!). For most of us, aspiration has to do with other things. Publication or adoring readers. The imprimatur of a hot agent or a mega-bucks movie deal. Or maybe we dream of creating a classic that lives on for centuries. We need our aspirations. They provide jet-fuel to our daily practice of writing. But we mustn’t confuse putting gas in the tank with the adventure of travel itself. The writing is the point. For me, that’s both an accurate and sustaining truth. To keep going, I have to love keeping going, even through the wanderings-in-the-wilderness of hollow drafts and demoralized edits. I aspire on walks, in the shower, as I drift off to sleep. But when it’s time to write, I just write.
3. What authors have most influenced your writing?
Oh, my goodness, the flood your question triggers. There are some writers whose work so slays me that I’ve found myself closing a book or finishing a story or poem with a deep conviction that there’s no reason for me to write another word. I’m a Southern gal. The deities to whom return are Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. I bow to Mark Twain and Anton Chekhov. And then there’s my man, Shakespeare. As Woody Allen says (in Annie Hall? Manhattan?), “Well, I’ve got to model myself on someone…” More recently, I’m knocked out by the work of all kinds of contemporary writers: Elizabeth McCracken, Frederick Busch, George Saunders, Michael Ondaatje, Karen Russell, to name way too few. I’m a slow reader. I like tale tellers. I also like writerly writers whose stories sing through exquisite language.
4. What has been the biggest challenge on your path to publication?
The only important challenge has been and continues to be writing work that is so damn good it makes your teeth hurt. The rest of it is dogged determination. I’m a thin-skinned person who taught herself to go for the long haul, to submit and submit, weathering the endless No’s for that eventual Yes. It’s also been hard for me to find my editor(s), that is to say, professional readers who both resonate to what I’m up to and have an ability to send me farther, faster. That’s an ongoing search.
5. What is your writing routine?
Writing is my favorite thing to do, even on bad days. It took me years to realize this, to drop my fear of inadequacy enough to feel that pull toward the page. I write pretty much daily. I’m a morning person. My husband and I get up early and read the papers—you know, real newspapers that smell of ink and ink your hands—big photos, gorgeous, large type. Old-school stuff. Then he’s off to work and I’m upstairs “in harness.” These days I have to set a timer reminding me get out of the chair and onto the treadmill. That’s not to say it’s all one happy flow; it’s not. But here’s a tip: before I abandon the desk each night, I leave myself a task, written on a Post It. I set it right here on my keyboard for the morning, so I won’t have any blank-page paralysis. If I’m in the middle of drafting, I leave myself a prompt. If I’m editing, I leave a next step or focus for the coming session. That helps enormously.
6. Your range of writing is amazing – playwright, short stories, novels, and children books. What is your favorite form?
At the moment, prose fiction, long or short, feels wonderful in comparison to writing for performance. On stage, the rich world I’m imagining can only be hinted at through dialogue. What a pleasure to be free to capture any and everything running through me more fully. It’s daunting but liberating.
7. If you were to describe yourself as a children’s book character who would that be?
Aspirationally? Wilbur. I’d love for someone to weave over my head “SOME PIG.” More seriously—well, Scout lives in my mind. That’s an adult book about a girl, but her relationship with Atticus—I love the way she loves her daddy. Oh, and one more. This one for little kids. I really love Little Bear in A Kiss for Little Bear, a book that serves as my model for the perfect picaresque story.
8. What is your greatest writing weakness?
No question, it’s the weakness I can’t see yet. It’s the flaw in the writing I can’t recognize because I don’t know enough. I hate that moment (and it happens all the time) when I’m reading stuff back and I see a blunder, a hole, a stretch of boring or confusing or just plain unreadable junk. It’s suddenly so obvious. It’s been there all along. Why didn’t I see it before? Those are not good moments. But, of course, that’s the literal experience of learning.
9. Tell us about your DreamTime series.
I haven’t thought about that in a while. Thanks for asking. The material for DreamTime grew out of a musical project. I had written the text for a children’s cantata with a composer I often work with, Jeff Langley. At the same time, I was considering migrating from the stage to the page. Going to Solace was in draft. So it occurred to me to adapt the cantata into a children’s book and self publish it in order to learn about publishing from the ground up. That’s so me. I come from DIY stock. It was one of the great decisions of my life. I taught myself book design. I studied the publishing business. I partnered with my niece; her childhood drawings became the illustrations (after much adjusting through Photoshop). Then I registered as a publisher with Lightning Source and learned the whole distribution and marketing routine. Phew.
I learned a lot in ways that have stood me in good stead with traditional publishers. Meanwhile, those books live in my heart. They present bedtime as an adventure—great for boys, for rambunctious kids and for children who are afraid of the dark. I published different read-out-loud versions customized for different kinds of caretakers, all with a sensitivity to the needs of same-sex parents, and an awareness that families come in all shapes and sizes.
10. How do you balance writing with life?
You know what? I don’t. At this age, with my stepson all grown up and a husband who loves to work as much as I do, I get to go overboard. What a privilege. As long as I have a little brain power left and the sheer good fortune of relative health, it’s all about go-go-go on the page. I find that very happy-making.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Amanda McTigue. To learn more, visit her website at www.amandamctigue.com. Ask your local bookstore to order Going to Solace for you or order it online at Amazon. It’s available in hardcover, paperback and all e-book formats.
In The Practical County Drama Queen, eleven-year-old Frannie has ten weeks to stop her older brother Ronnie from making the biggest mistake of his life. As the youngest of Practical County’s Ryan family, Frannie has grown up watching everything. Watching her older brother and sister show steers, watching her Granddad work with the cows and calves, and watching the Darling sisters manipulate, lie, and cheat at the Practical County Fair. Frannie has also grown up knowing that, if she’s persistent enough, she can usually accomplish whatever she set out to do. But in this summer tale of growing up and letting go, Frannie begins to realize that some things in life just might be beyond her control.
2. What was the inspiration behind your main character?
Frannie was a fan-favorite character in my debut novel, The Beef Princess of Practical County. Then, she was a precocious preschooler with a huge vocabulary and an even bigger imagination. Readers begged me to give Frannie her own story. So, Frannie grew up a little, and what a story she has to tell!
3. Who are your favorite authors?
I have always had great respect for Katherine Paterson. And, anything written by Cynthia Rylant is golden in my eyes!
4. What has been the biggest challenge on your path to publication?
Patience. It goes against my nature to be patient. But authors know that the publishing world moves at a turtle’s pace. If you can’t be patient, you’ll give up before you get to the best part!
5. Were you a drama queen as a teen?
Me? (Laughs hysterically) Oh, pul-eeze! Why you even ask me that? For crying out loud! A drama queen? Ha! Really. (Rolls eyes).
6. If you were to describe yourself as a type of livestock, what would you be?
I’m probably a mother hen. I could curl up on a nest and brood all day.
7. What are your writing strengths?
I’m an instinctive writer. I don’t follow an outline. I break a lot of “rules.” I like working on character and setting. Planning out the plot gives me fits, so I usually just write and see what happens. Is that a strength? Or chaos in action? I’m not sure, exactly.
8. Was it easier to find a publisher for this book, than your debut novel, The Beef
Princess of Practical County?
One would think! But life is tricky sometimes, isn’t it? I entered The Beef Princess of Practical County in the Delacorte Dell Middle Grade Fiction Contest in 2008. I didn’t win. No one did, actually. It was one of the years they didn’t choose a winner. But shortly after, I got a call saying I was a finalist. And, would I be willing to do some work on the novel and resubmit it? Uh, sure? Of course! So, Beef Princess was sold to a Random House imprint without an agent on a second try. Not your typical “how I got published” story, I’ll admit.
Beef Princess fans asked for more. (But my editor didn’t.) Young readers said, “You should write another Practical County story!” (Hmm, my editor didn’t.) School teachers said, “Frannie surely has her own tale to tell!” (But my editor wasn’t asking for Frannie’s tale.) So, I wrote it. And much to my shock and chagrin, guess who wasn’t all that interested? I know, I know. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed sometimes.
After Beef Princess, I landed a fantastic agent, who sold my middle-grade novel about Danish gnomes at Christmastime (a bit of a leap from cattle farming, I know) to Candlewick Press. That is Winterfrost – due to release 9/9/14. My wonderful agent was determined to sell The Practical County Drama Queen. But we were met time and time again with this: It just doesn’t make sense for us to publish a sequel to something we didn’t publish in the first place.
Enter SCBWI. Their member’s magazine had a story last year on E-First Publishers. These publishers put books out in electronic format first. Then, they may or may not offer a print edition. My agent submitted, and MuseItUp offered an electronic AND print contract right away. Frannie’s tale would be told!
9. How do you balance writing with raising a family?
Seasons. I give myself permission NOT to write during certain seasons. When my farmer husband is planting or harvesting and I’m doing all the household chores, feeding extra farmhands, and running for parts to fix broken equipment, I give myself permission NOT to write. When I’m hosting the extended family Christmas and working parttime and caring for aging in-laws, I give myself permission NOT to write. It sure beats beating myself up for NOT writing. But when I have a deadline or a blizzard hits or I’m just inspired, I declare a season of writing. And that’s when I give myself permission NOT to fold laundry. It sure beats beating myself up over it.
10. Can you tell us about your writing space?
Right now I write just about anywhere I can find a quiet corner. But, I’m working on restoring a one-room schoolhouse built in 1894. It has been used as a barn for more than 50 years, so it needs a lot of work! When it’s done, I want to use it as my writing studio. And, I dream of having a cat there. I’d name her Miss Beadle.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Michelle Houts. To learn more visit her website www.michellehouts.com
To buy her books visit your favorite local independent bookstore or www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com
In one paragraph, tell us about your new memoir, Maracaibo Oil Brat.
When Susan McClurg’s parents accept a job transfer in 1957, Susan is plucked out of her familiar and routine existence in Orange, Texas and plunked down in always-hot, oil-rich Maracaibo, Venezuela. Too tall, preteen Susan struggles with making all new friends while she tries to learn Spanish. (She secretly believes that everyone should just speak English.) And Susan lives in a country peppered with revolutions, strikes, food shortages, and mandatory curfews. All she wants to do is move back to Orange.
What have been the reactions of the people from your childhood who lived in Venezuela or Orange, Texas that are included in the book?
Several have read the first chapter on Amazon and the feedback has been good. I do talk about my peers in both in Orange and Maracaibo. Since the book was just released on October 27, 2013, it is difficult to determine what reactions will be.
What have been the biggest challenges in getting the book published? Was it perhaps a Dragon that doesn’t understand Spanish?
My biggest problem has been trying to find an agent. My book does not have broad appeal except for Army brats, kids whose parents were either nomads or missionaries, or families always doing the Midnight Flit to keep ahead of creditors.
Actually, I used my Dragon very little for this book as I wrote most of it over a period of several years, perhaps before Dragon had been invented. For the few times I used Dragon for this book, it understood me better if I said Spanish words with a North American accent. (Upon setup, Dragon asks if the user has an accent. I chose Southern as Texan was not listed, let alone an East Texas choice.)
If you could go back in time, would you have chosen to remain in Texas?
If I were eleven again, I most assuredly would have chosen to stay in Orange. I would have had a life of colorful, flowing formal dresses with Rainbow Girls (part of the Masons), gorgeous costumes for the ballet and toe dancing recitals (and a solo performance or two, for sure), high heels, football games, and both junior and senior proms with stunning, elegant gowns.
How did your experience living in Venezuela change you as a person? In what ways do you think it made you different from people who grew up without an experience?
I came to see life in a more global manner. I saw what real poverty was – people living in shacks made of cardboard and whatever they found on the street. There were so many abysmally poor people with a small number of filthy rich. The McClurgs, who qualified as middle class in the States, were seen as “rich” by the masses. How could there be any poor, uneducated, sick people living in a nation filled with oil, not to mention gold, diamonds, pearls, copper, and semi-precious gemstones? Daddy always said everyone in Maracaibo should own their own home and be driving a Cadillac. Why weren’t they, I wondered.
What were you feeling at the time of the government revolt when troops and tanks roamed the streets? Were you frightened?
Frightened? Heck, yeah! In Orange, I had never seen uniformed servicemen in the streets unless they participated in a parade. The only police officer I saw was the crossing guard in front of Anderson Elementary. Caracas experienced tanks and gunfire. There were soldiers in jeeps that roamed the Maracaibo streets maintaining a strict curfew, machine guns at the ready. The overthrow of any government was beyond anything I could have imagined. All the more reason for me to return to Texas where it was safe.
Describe your journey to publication.
Painful. I submitted to fourteen agents and have fourteen rejection letters to prove it. I am too old to tolerate any more rejection, which pushed me to self publish.
Tell us about your techniques to get rid of that voice that tells you your writing is no good.
I have a toy pistol in my penholder on my desk. When “Bad Betty” shows up on my shoulder, I take the pistol and shoot her. I also scare away the “meanie nay-sayers” by listening either to classical music (so I won’t sing along) or the music from “Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.” Failing that, I go outdoors and play with my roses and give up writing for the day.
What is your favorite clothing to wear while writing?
My twenty-five-year-old red bathrobe. I cannot get rid of it. The poor robe is embellished with an unexplained bleach stain and ventilated with a hole or two. To wash it, I must take it to the laundromat because its wet weight makes my home washer dance and thump. The comfort and coziness of my robe puts me into a cozy, creative mood.
Can you give us a sneak preview of Book Two when you were in your tween years?
Susan’s life is enhanced by the installation of a home phone, an introduction to the Teen Club, and a long awaited family membership to the Creole Club, a place for swimming, movies and socialization. She learns that not all boys are cootie-infested morons.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Susan McClurg Berman. You can find her book at www.maracaibooilbrat.com or on Amazon.com.
I have never been a big reader of poetry. But when I do, I tend to love it. I embrace the imagery and the way those lean, clever words make me ponder. Four years ago, at Back to School Night, my daughter’s freshman English teacher read Mary Oliver ‘s The Summer Day (famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/mary_oliver) to the assembled parents. As a biologist and lover of literature, I cannot believe that I had never heard of this writer. She and I are kindred spirits, yet she unfolds the natural world in a way I have never experienced. After all, I took an Entomology class in college, so how could I not know that a grasshopper chews back and forth?
This learned woman who teaches high school English read this poem to us parents, just as she had guided our children through the verses on the first day of school, because of the message in this beautifully written poem. Each stanza draws us in and leaves the reader with a simple reminder: We only get one shot at life. On that night, with a room filled with mothers and fathers, this English instructor closed her book and issued a challenge: Pause and ask yourself a question, not just at weddings or funerals or when you ship your children off to college, ask yourself today this concluding line of Mary Oliver’s poem: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I shipped my youngest daughter off to college a few weeks ago. I know what I want to do with my life. I want to practice the craft of writing in the hopes that I, too, will capture the power of words — words that will make someone realize that death is inevitable, that every day is a gift, that each moment is an opportunity to reflect on the direction of one’s life. Until then, let me pass along Mary Oliver’s poignant phrase: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?